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WILLOW FARM

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CAMBRIDGE

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Blog

Hello , I am Paul , founder of Waterland Organics. For over 20 years now I have been growing organically in the Cambridgeshire Fens .  The journey has been long but has not finished . Hopefully , this blog will give you an insight into what do and the place where we do it ; It's grimness and its equisite beauty

By pauljonathan, Jan 31 2014 05:17PM

Today .I found myself standing in a mud lined puddle ,contemplating how much more rain has got to fall, before the rain breaches the rubber tops of my wellies and reeks a cold wet Armageddon on the nice warm socks given to me by my two loving daughters for Christmas . ‘Not long.’ Were the words I mumbled out in answer to my internal dialogue . It could be worse but for our local drainage board ; Swaffham Internal Drainage Board , to give it its’ full title . The district this board covers stretches over twelve thousand acres of some of the lowest lying land in the country . The majority of the unpaid members on the board are local farmers , who in theory at least elected to the position by drainage rate paying landowners . In practice this rarely actually happens as the rate payers are generally happy with what the board undertakes and know an election would cost money.

The SIDP (Swaffham Internal Drainage Board) are responsible for the maintenance of drains and ditches within the area . Farm ditches feed into this via other drainage board maintained ditches . The one closest to me is called Hatleys Interline ; named after farmers of that name who once farmed next to us .The course of some of this drain probably follows an old natural stream and in the early nineteenth century would have eventually joined up with a wind powered pump on the edge of the Cam . All the drainage board ditches have names . The main drain in our area is Commissioners Drain that runs from Lode Fen through Swaffham Fen and down to the Pumping station at Upware . Here the water is pumped out of the lower level of the fen into the Cam . From then on it is the Environment Agency’s job to take it out to sea , via Denver Sluice .

For keeping the drains in the district dredged , weeds cut and pumps and machinery maintained I pay just over £10 per acre . Twenty years before , we were paying just under £10 per acre . In the nineties , the Labour Government considered getting rid of the drainage boards in favour of some Environmental Agency management . After a bit of research they realised the existing system worked well and was run very economically . They also realised that if the system was undertaken by government bureaucrats the drainage rates or similar would have to rise considerably . Very wisely they knocked the idea hard on the head , which saved us all from larger bills . Bear in mind that although landowners pay drainage rates directly , if you pay council tax , you too are indirectly paying drainage rates as the District Councils pay it on your behalf. The drainage board are very efficient and cost conscious . Dredging out drains is an expensive operation and to stop flooding it is important that water moves quickly along these drains .Land drains cannot empty water into ditches whose water level is higher than the drains themselves . That is why money is spent every year and keeping the drains clean . I looked at Commissioners Drain the other day and it is very reassuring to see the speed that it is heading out of the district . In fact water moving fast down a drain will silt up less.

Although the Drainage Board works hard to keep the drainage rates down , they are not afraid to spend money to reduce the risk of problems in the future . An example of this was when I was on the board in the nineties was the Stacey Plan . The consulting engineer of the time , Keith Stacey , along with all of us realised that many of the drains were now in the wrong place . The drains had originally and quite sensibly been put through the lowest parts of the fen . These were generally not where the peat land was the deepest . As a consequence as the peat dried and shrunk the main drains ended up being on the higher ground . To get the water to run the right way meant these drains had to be made deeper and deeper and then wider , to stop them caving in . As you cross the bridge just before my farm and look right you will see a good example of the problem . Keith Staceys’ plan sited new drains in the more peaty and lower parts of the district . This has meant that we now have a new set of drains that will be future proof for the best part of a century .The plan was instigated in years of drought and had to be done with minimal increase in the drainage rates , as it was a period of relative recession in the farming industry . It is not often governments look 100 years ahead and am pretty sure if the drainage board system had been disbanded the Stacey Plan would not have happened .

‘What about the water after you have pumped it out of your district?’ You may ask . Well , at Upware there is a bunded wash area that can take most of it , for a time anyway . Further down in the Fen there is the Bedford wash . An area of land twenty one miles long and around half a mile wide , that starts at Erith and goes as far as Denver Sluice . On the west side there is the Old Bedford River, dug in the 1630’s and on the east side there is the New Bedford River ,which was dug out in the early 1650’s . This was dug after the Duke of Bedford got the approval of Oliver Cromwell , a man who twenty odd years had gained much fenland support for his attack on fenland drainage schemes . (It is ironic that many of the forefathers of the people on the drainage boards would have been against the draining of the fens , as it meant the loss of common ground for grazing and meres to wildfowl in) . The twenty mile long 100 feet wide cut, was undertaken by Scottish prisoners of war(captured after The Battle of Dunbar) , of which a forefather of mine was one along with Dutch sailors captured in naval battles(The First Anglo Dutch War) . There was also many workers from the lowlands of Europe who probably supplied much of the practical know how .Not many locals took part as they were against any drainage works , in fact many (known as Fen Tigers)did much to destroy any drainage schemes. This feat was undertaken in under three years with no mechanical diggers , abysmal living conditions and a poor diet .Many died and Fenlandl legend says they were just buried in the banks . When you hear about flooding at Welney or at Beddinghams Drove and the Anchor pub ; it is because these roads are in the wash between the two Bedford rivers .The are designed to flood . You may think that this water has just come from the fens but no ; much of it has come from the East Midlands and is stored on the wash land until it can be pumped or let out into the sea itself .

As I finish this blog Led Zeps ‘When the levee breaks’ has just come on on Spotify . Do you know something , not round here will the levee break ; At least not the bits looked after by the drainage board .



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